No one expected Lawrence Bernard to return home from the sea when Cyclone Ockhi hit coastal Kerala last November. The 48-year-old fisherman was missing for over three days after it struck. During that time, he was clinging to his capsized boat in the cold waters of the Arabian Sea, braving monster waves that had paralysed his lower body and shattered his ear drums. He was eventually rescued by a foreign merchant ship.
Bernard’s joy knew no bounds when he finally returned home to Poonthura village in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram district, where he spent three days being treated at the Government Medical College. But a year after his miraculous escape, he wonders if it would have been better if he had died at sea. “I am a living dead,” said Bernard from his bed on Friday. “I cannot work. I cannot move on my own. Back pain and vertigo attacks have ruined my life. Did God save me from Ockhi to undergo all these hardships? My family would have got government support if I had died at sea.”
Cyclone Ockhi, which battered Lakshadweep, Tamil Nadu and Kerala on November 29, 2017, before heading towards Gujarat, had killed 143 fishermen in Kerala. Only 52 bodies could be recovered, while the remaining 91 missing fishermen were declared dead.
Since then, the Kerala government has spent Rs 202 crore to support affected families, rebuild coastal villages and help the fishing industry return to normalcy. This sum includes the Rs 20 lakh the government provided to the immediate relatives of each deceased fisherman as compensation, and monetary assistance for those who were injured and whose boats were damaged. Bernard, for instance, received Rs 10,000 as financial assistance after he was discharged from hospital.
Poonthura and Vizhinjam fishing villages in Thiruvananthapuram district bore the brunt of the cyclone. Together they accounted for half the deaths recorded in the state – 35 fishermen from Poonthura and 37 from Vizhinjam. Bernard is one of the 153 survivors from the two villages.
Many protests were held in these villages immediately after Ockhi – first to demand that the government intensify rescue operations and later to push for higher financial support for the dead and injured. A year later, there is resentment against the government on a number of issues. These include conditions attached to the compensation amount, a perception that the injured have been left to fend for themselves, and claims that the government has not given the widows of fishermen the jobs they were promised.
In this past year, these villages have also seen far-reaching socio-economic changes because of Ockhi. Several fishermen have quit fishing out of fear or are taking an extended break from the sea. This has had a domino effect on the fishing industry that the economies of the two villages are so dependent upon.
Right to compensation
One of the biggest grouses the families of the dead fishermen have are related to the conditions the government has attached to the compensation amount.
The sum of Rs 20 lakh was equally divided among the parents, wife, children, and unwed sisters of the dead fishermen. According to the terms of disbursement, the sum was converted into a bank fixed deposit for five years. The beneficiaries receive the interest earned on that deposit in monthly instalments. In families where the deceased fishermen had children, the principal amount can only be withdrawn for their marriage. It is not clear when the parents and widows of fishermen who died without children can withdraw the lump sum.
The families say that the government should allow them to withdraw their entire share to settle their debts as that helps them more financially.
Vizhinjam resident Blasita Pathrose, 56, who lost her son Sebastiaradima alias Sebastian, 36, received one fourth of the compensation amount, or Rs 5 lakh. Sebastian’s wife and two children were the other beneficiaries. “I get monthly interest of Rs 3,500, but I pay Rs 4,000 as rent for the place where I live with my daughter,” she said. “I never faced financial difficulties when my son was alive. I would have bought a house if the government allowed me to withdraw my share.”
Muthappan Alarappan and his wife Elsy, also from Vizhinjam, lost their youngest son John Muthappan, 29, to Ockhi. His body was not recovered. “John lived with us in this rented house,” said 55-year-old Alarappan looking at his son’s photograph hanging on a wall of their home. “He used to take care of all our needs.” The couple pays Rs 2,000 a month to rent their tiny asbestos-roofed home. “We get Rs 14,000 as interest from the fixed deposit, which is a big support,” said Elsy. “But we should be allowed to withdraw it. It will help us buy our own house.”
Leaders of the Catholic Church, which wields a lot of clout in Thiruvananthapuram’s Christian-dominated coastal villages, have also demanded that the state allow relatives of the victims to withdraw the entire compensation amount. “The government should hand over at least half of the money to the relatives,” said Issac Johny, secretary of the parish council at the Our Lady of Good Voyage Church in Vizhinjam. “It will help them pay their debts and relocate from rented homes.” The parish council comprises priests and lay people and runs the daily affairs of the church.
Father Bebinson, the vicar of St Thomas Church in Poonthura, agreed. “Parents of the victims do not have any other sources of income,” he said. “They pay rent from the interest they receive. They could relocate to their own home if the government allows them to withdraw the amount.”
There are also demands for the government to compensate fishermen for the loss of work due to bad weather. Bebinson said fishermen lost more than 80 days of work in 2018 due to adverse weather warnings. “The government should compensate them with free ration for loss of working days,” he said.
But some fishermen have also been avoiding the sea because they are fearful, and this has had a cascading effect on the fishing economy here.
For instance, on November 17, when the India Meterological Department issued a warning asking Kerala’s fishermen to not venture out to sea for four days because of Cyclone Gaja, very few fishing boats left the Vizhinjam and Poonthura harbours after that period ended. The majority of fishermen wanted to wait three more days until the effects of Gaja, which had wreaked havoc in Tamil Nadu, had completely subsided. “Fear has gripped Poonthura after Ockhi,” said Bebinson. “Fishermen do not want to risk their lives anymore.”
Some fishermen were not ashamed to admit this. They said they are now obsessed with weather warnings and decide not to go fishing even if there was a mild warning.
Joseph Francis, 37, was one of them. He began fishing at the age of 15 and is known as the bravest fisherman in Poonthura. But after a close shave during Ockhi, Francis does not want to risk his life anymore. “Ockhi drained all my courage,” he said. “Earlier, I never missed a day. Now I work one or two days in a week. I am wary of even small waves now.”
Some have abandoned fishing completely.
Selban Paniyadima, 55, and Delbow Susamariya, 49, both from Poonthura village, spent three days in the sea holding onto a capsized boat after Ockhi struck. “I am afraid of the sea now,” said Paniyadima. “Waves increase my heartbeats. So I decided to stop working.”
Susamariya said his decision to quit fishing was the “hardest decision of my life” but he did not have an option as he did not have the strength to face the sea again.
The majority of such fishermen now ply auto-rickshaws for a living.
Vizhinjam resident Marya John, 35, who had a narrow escape during Ockhi, has not stepped into a boat in a year. “I am scared,” he said. “My family also asked me not to risk my life so I opted for a less dangerous job.” John bought an auto-rickshaw in December, learnt to drive with the help of a friend, got his license, and began working as an auto-rickshaw driver in February. “I will continue with this job till I conquer my fear for the sea,” he said.
Forty-one-year old Maxwell Alphonse of Poonthura bought an auto-rickshaw after he realised that he did not have the heart to continue fishing any more. Though he was at home during Ockhi, he joined a search team to find missing fishermen after the storm abated. “I fished out a couple of dead bodies,” he said. “That was a depressing experience.” But Alphonse said that he would resume fishing again. “Plying an auto-rickshaw is just a stop-gap arrangement,” he said.
According to Bebinson, the number of auto-rickshaws in Poonthura has increased from 90 to 170 in just one year.
Blow to the market
All this has affected the market related to the fishing business. Local businesspersons say the sale of fishing-related paraphernalia – kerosene, engine oil, fishing nets – have not picked up since Ockhi.
Binu Gouris, who owns a shipping material store in Vizhinjam, said his daily sales of engine oil have declined to one-third of the quantity sold in the corresponding period last year. He attributes this to the fall in the number of boats heading to sea. “I used to sell 75 five-litre cans of engine oil every day,” he said, showing this corespondent his ledger. “It has come down to just 15 cans now.”
Thadayoos Maryadas owns a boat manufacturing yard in Vizhinjam in which more than 500 boats have been built over the last 20 years. Business is bad, he said, with hardly any demand for new boats. At the end of November, Maryadas was building his sixth boat of the year. Last year, he built 20 boats. “The numbers speak for themselves,” he said.
Business in one commodity is booming in Poonthura and Vizhinjam: wireless sets. Owners of fishing vessels, which usually travel about 30 nautical miles into the sea, are ordering new sets to be fitted in their vessels (the bigger boats already have them). The owners register the radio frequency with the Coast Guard and coastal police, who can alert them about bad weather conditions even while they are at sea. Each set costs between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000.
Belhar Antony recently bought one such set. He said he would not have had to if the state government had kept its promise of distributing to fishermen Navic, the autonomous regional satellite navigation system developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation.
But M Tajudeen, deputy director at the fisheries department, said the government will soon provide fishermen with navigation sets, satellite phones and life jackets. “The government has sanctioned Rs 25.36 crore to provide 15,000 fishing vessels with Navic,” said Tajudeen. “The system will warn fishermen about weather forecasts and potential fishing zones in the 1,500 km rage from the coast.”
Besides complaints related to the compensation amount, relatives of fishermen killed by Ockhi want the government to provide them with jobs.
Tajudeen claimed that the government has provided jobs to widows of deceased fishermen. “We have selected women below 40 years who passed matriculation,” he said. “We will provide jobs for more women soon.”
However, some residents of the fishing villages are sceptical about this promise. “We don’t know how the beneficiaries were selected,” said Elsy, mother of John Muthappan. “I have applied for a job but haven’t got any reply so far.” She said age should not be a constraint for jobs. “We lost the sole breadwinner of my family,” said Elsy. “Now I have no option but to work. The government should consider this and not age to select people for jobs.”
Others said that the wives of critically injured fishermen should be considered for jobs too. Poonthura resident Geetha, 36, said she was financially dependent on her relatives after her husband Michael, 47, was paralysed during Ockhi. At present, Geetha and his nephew take care of him. “I don’t know how I will live,” said Geetha. “I hope the government will support me.”
Despite their other complaints, the villagers appreciated the government’s initiative to provide free education and vocational training to the children of fishermen who died or went missing. “This is a blessing for us,” said Blasita Pathrose. “My grandchildren have received the financial assistance.”
Even as they struggled to rebuild their lives since Ockhi, fishermen from Poonthura and Vizhinjam stepped in to help when Kerala was reeling under floods in August. They were among the fishermen who voluntarily took their boats to the marooned inland areas and rescued thousands of people stranded for days.
“We didn’t think twice when we came to know the gravity of the situation,” said Joseph Francis in Poonthura. He and his friends worked for three days straight to rescue people in Chengannur, one of the worst-affected areas. “Our boat rescued more than 500 people,” he said.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan recognised the contribution of fishermen like Francis at a function to honour them in Thiruvananthapuram in August. He said that they did not think of their own safety, their families or any other monetary gains from the government when they joined in the rescue operations.
Joseph said the people of Kerala did not pay much attention to their plight after Cyclone Ockhi. “But we could not leave our brothers and sisters at the time of a natural calamity,” he said.
All photographs by TA Ameerudheen.